Just down the street from us, a lovely new home has been rising from its forested setting in a procedure that never ceases to amaze me when dreams and hopes are put into tangible form.
As I drive past the work-in-progress, I’m reminded of the tantalizing lure of building a dream house from the ground up.
I’ve never done that, but we came close. When we rebuilt after a 1994 fire destroyed our family home, we used the same foundation and essentially the same floor plan. But the process was close enough so we discovered most of the pleasures and traps of a creating from scratch a brand new house.
For openers, no matter how meticulously you plan, conspire and design, no house is ever perfect. Accept that from the get-go and you’ll be a lot happier when you live there.
When we rebuilt, we thought we’d fixed every problem that ever existed in the old house. No such luck. We even invented some new oddities. We didn’t learn about any of them until we’d moved in.
For instance, the light switch in the guest bedroom was behind one of the French doors leading into the room. That can be brutal to toes that get stubbed while their owner is groping around in the dark to find the blimey switch.
There also are a host of quirks in any existing house you can buy, little idiosyncrasies, squeaks, knocks and hidden glitches that no house inspector will ever find ahead of time.
For instance in our hilltop home, we have a beautiful front door, supposedly patterned after a 12th Century Japanese temple door. It was one of the first things we loved about the house.
However, we didn’t know the door has no weather stripping. Between the door and the jamb, there’s a gap big enough for frogs and lizards to slither through. How do I know? I’ve seen them do it.
Add stripping? The door weighs as much as a baby elephant seal and is just about as unwieldy and uncooperative. It would take the entire Broncos football team to lift it.
Secondly, the door is a full 4¼ feet wide. Weather-stripping kits for doors don’t come that wide. We’re still trying to find a fix.
Some problems, however, are evident from the start. Before we bought this house, for instance, we knew it had two water heaters. It took some sleuthing to figure out which one did what.
We also knew the house had five separate heating systems. Yes, five.
1. An in-ceiling radiant-heating system in one wing (what am I missing here ... doesn't heat rise?). The system didn't work, either in concept or in actuality.
2. In the entryway, a clunky, ugly 1960s, in-the-wall gas heater, which didn't work either.
3. A wonderful Danish sealed-unit stove, shaped like a modern woodstove but which uses natural gas and works like a charm.
4. A strange but efficient system of water-heated radiators in the other wing.
5. A portable oil heater in the downstairs studio.
What to do? We removed the gas heater, and eventually hired a radiant-heating expert to refurbish the radiator system (I’d forgotten that radiator pumps shriek mercilessly when there’s a problem, usually at 2 a.m.). Then we disconnected the ceiling radiant system and did the unthinkable. We got a forced air furnace AND air conditioner.
Everybody thought we were nuts. Why would anybody ever install air conditioning in Cambria?
Two-word answer: asthmatic spouse. On a hot day in heavy pollen season, or when there’s a wildfire within winds’ reach of here, Husband Richard is more than just miserable with his asthma. He’s also in respiratory danger. Have you ever noticed that it’s usually hot when wildfires are raging?
Now on windy, smoky or hot days, Husband Richard can hide behind closed doors in our air-conditioned bedroom with his coffee, book, laptop and the TV.
Anyhow, I’m sure the owners of the new home down the street will find its foibles and oddities eventually, no matter how carefully the house was planned. I just hope those people love their Cambria abode — warts and all — as much as we love ours.
And, welcome to the neighborhood!